A delay in putting in place measures to respond to the HSE’s recent backlog in Covid-19 contact tracing calls would have put public health at risk, according to IMO President Dr Padraig McGarry.
The Longford GP explained that the IMO “did not have the luxury of time” when the problem arose, with last minute discussions taking place with the HSE “over the weekend” on how to alleviate the logjam.
GPs were informed by the IMO on Tuesday 20 October that the contact tracing system had become overwhelmed the previous weekend.
In a bid to clear a backlog of more than 2,000 calls, GPs were asked to process calls and refer for Covid-19 testing the close contacts of positive cases confirmed by the HSE between 16 and 18 October.
Up to this point, GPs had so far only referred patients with symptoms for tests.
After news of the controversy broke on the Tuesday night, several GPs took to social media to express anger at the move, arguing that it would overwhelm their already overburdened practices and reduce time for the provision of non-Covid care.
Limerick-based GP Dr Nicola Stapleton criticised the HSE for not securing adequate contact tracing staff and described the move as “a completely inappropriate use of scarce GP resources”. She called for greater investment in public health to help improve contact tracing and support overstretched public health teams.
Other GPs, however, stoically accepted the temporary measure was necessary given the extraordinary nature of events.
Dr McGarry argued that GPs were not being asked to perform contact tracing. He maintained that the problem required a “quick response”, stating that any delay would have put public health at further risk.
“A delay by even a day put the public at further unnecessary risk,” he remarked.
“At the risk of patient contacts being ignored we were asked to step into the breach for a limited cohort of people in support of our public health colleagues.
He said the issue “highlighted the importance of general practice as a vehicle of healthcare” in the pandemic.
He accepted that GPs were tired and that the measure would create an “additional workload”, but stressed that it was temporary and would not overwhelm practices.
“After all, we are all in this together,” he added.
Dr Martin Daly, a former IMO president, said GPs were faced with “exceptional measures in exceptional times that doesn’t stop with just one initiative but repeated efforts by all of us who can help until we beat this virus”.
“It is tough, there should be more capacity, but that doesn’t help in the now”.
Dublin GP Dr Ray Walley, a member of the IMO GP committee, described the agreement to take on the work as an “emergency decision” that was ratified by the entire IMO GP committee, of which there are around 20 members.